Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market

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Date: Aug. 2001
From: Journal of Southern History(Vol. 67, Issue 3)
Publisher: Southern Historical Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 622 words
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. By Walter Johnson. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. [xii], 283. $26.00, ISBN 0-674-82148-3.)

An 1854 Louisiana business census listed nineteen New Orleans slave yards concentrated in two sections of the city. In Soul by Soul, Walter Johnson reconstructs the operations of those antebellum slave markets on the basis of an exhaustive study of court records, the testimony of former slaves, financial documentation of the trade, and slaveholders' writings. On the downriver boundary of the French Quarter, a cluster of slave markets radiated from Esplanade Avenue near the Mississippi River. Another grouping of slave yards developed around 1850 at the opposite end of the Vieux Carre in the uptown "americain" sector--an area of thriving commercial activity. After Federal troops seized New Orleans in 1862, slave traders boarded up their businesses. In January 1864 the Union-occupied city was stripped of signboards advertising slaves for sale. Boarding houses, cotton brokerages, and a bank replaced the slave yards through which tens of thousands of black southerners had passed. Today there are no vestiges of North America's largest antebellum slave market; no "slave pens" to convey the degradation and suffering; no landmarks to evoke the enduring spirit of the survivors. Johnson's gripping study speaks eloquently to this void.

During the slave trading season between September and May, New Orleans sellers lined slaves along the walls in their showrooms or in the streets in front of their markets. Yet Johnson reaches far beyond the fifteen-to-twenty-feet-high walls of the city's slave pens to the whole of the domestic slave trade and, finally, to the making of the antebellum South itself. For, as he cogently argues, the "world the slave traders made" underwrote the history of the South's political economy (p. 40). Between 1820 and 1860, the two-thirds of a million people who moved through the interstate slave markets represented nearly half a billion dollars in property. In interstate and local markets combined, over two million slave sales fueled the trade's massive nineteenth-century expansion. Johnson maintains that, with each transaction, slaveholders staked a claim to success--a claim embodied in the black men, women, and children out of whom the plantation South was built. For the slave trade's white buyers and sellers, the price paid carried with it their slave-market fantasies of respectability, wealth, and power.

Johnson's findings also reveal that slaves sometimes shaped their sales through manipulation and resistance. Some managed to hold their families together, while others, like Harriet Tubman, determined the nature of their work. Still, the author cautions, such victories should not be overstated. For the enslaved, their value as a commodity always hung over their heads. Their bodies, Johnson writes, "were suffused with the threat of sale, whether they were in the pens or not" (p. 214). This "chattel principle" took an inconceivably high toll in the forty years before the Civil War. In the two-thirds of a million interstate sales, 25 percent involved the destruction of a first marriage. Fifty percent destroyed a nuclear family, with many of the sales separating children under the age of thirteen from their parents.

Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul, like Michael Tadman's Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), refines the paternalist interpretation of slavery. The slave system's pervasive violence belied the presence of a set of reciprocal duties and responsibilities. The daily history of slavery, Johnson contends, began in the slave market's showrooms as a contest between the slaveholder's efforts to beat their slaves into submission and the slaves' collective will to resist. In this imaginatively conceived and powerfully written study, Johnson illuminates the history of the antebellum South and the ultimate meaning of slavery.

University of Massachusetts

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A77745500